What Does It Mean to Be “Emotionally Literate”?

by | Oct 12, 2021 | Feelings

Developing our emotional literacy is a significant aspect of becoming more resourced to have difficult conversations, but…

What does it actually mean to have emotional literacy?  

Emotional literacy is an umbrella term that captures a set of skills and capacities that we develop as we grow into mature, capable, self-responsible, healthy grown-ups who are able to track, feel, manage, process, express, and work with their emotions in effective, life-affirming ways.

Our emotions bring us a tremendous amount of passion and power.

They give us invaluable information about our underlying universal human needs and are a source of vitality, aliveness, and connection for ourselves and others. Embracing the fullest range of our emotional experiences on a moment-to-moment basis, without numbing out or acting out, is energizing and enlivening.

Despite this, leaders, managers, teachers, and parents often frame the problems they are facing at work and home through the lens that other people are being “too emotional.” They think, if I could just help this person be less emotional, the problem would be solved.

This is a fundamental but very common misunderstanding. The problem is not in the emotions. The problem is actually in a systemic lack of capacity to work with emotions skillfully.

Enter: developing our emotional literacy and intelligence.

Instead of seeing emotions as dangerous, overwhelming, out-of-control, unacceptable, inappropriate, or undesirable, what would it be like to recognize them as your inner gateway to meaning, purpose, acceptance, belonging, intimacy, freedom, and connection?

Our emotions are not problematic; they are deeply intertwined with our wisdom, memories, desires, and energy.

Once we learn how to connect to our feelings and sensations, name them accurately, observe and witness their sensations and movement through our bodies, connect them to our universal human needs, and once we practice feeling them with consciousness and compassion, we also then reconnect with our inherent energy, vitality, and desires.

Whenever we’re feeling stuck, unmoored, unmotivated, and lost at sea, it’s often an indication that we’re out of touch with our desires and intrinsic motivations. And very often we become out of touch with these desires and motivations because we’ve tied up our energy in so-called “negative” emotions that we haven’t given ourselves permission to feel, acknowledge, and process (such as rage, anger, fear, grief, envy, or sadness).

Every emotional state we experience brings us clues about our deep desires. Desire lies at the root of emotional experiences, and our desires often lead us to our inner wisdom about what may be needed to create more life-affirming, healthy, interdependent structures in our home and work lives.

So how do we work with our emotions, you may ask? 

Here are some ideas for how to metabolize, process, and transform our emotions into energy, vitality, and empowerment:

1. Approve of your feelings – every single one of them. The first step in making peace with all of your emotional states is to welcome, allow, and approve of them.

2. Develop a wider literacy of feelings. Give your emotions accurate, nuanced names.  Download these feelings sheets: 1) needs met and 2) needs unmet, and practice broadening your vocabulary. Words are tools of distinction, and the more specific and nuanced your toolkit is, the more clarity you’ll develop with your experience of emotions.

3. Focus on what your feelings and emotions are telling you about your needs and desires. Make the connection: I feel hungry because I have a desire for food. My feeling of thirst tells me about my need for hydration. My feelings of loneliness point me to my own needs for companionship and connection.

4. Watch your feelings move and change, and track each emotion’s patterns through your body. Is there movement upward or downward, inward or outward? Does this energy you’re experiencing radiate out from you, or does it move tightly inward toward your center?

5. Practice celebrating the aliveness that you find within yourself. When you become aware of your feelings, use this mantra:

I celebrate feeling the aliveness of disappointment…
I celebrate feeling the aliveness of anger …
I celebrate feeling the aliveness of sadness …
I celebrate feeling the aliveness of [insert feeling here] …

Try to access the pleasure inherent in our feeling states, even the “negative” feelings. By focusing on the energy, sensation, and movement of a feeling, you might even find that your perception of something unpleasant becomes enjoyable.

When you stop seeing your feelings as dangerous, bad, or wrong, you might discover your ability to access the inherent pleasure of the vitality, energy, movement, release, and power that can be locked up in fear-states, anger-states, sadness-states, and more.

It’s a lifelong journey.

Moving back into deep and empowering connection with our emotions is a process and taking any of the steps above can strengthen your connections, increase your awareness, and bring more wisdom and intelligence to your life experience.

Check out these articles for more about working with your emotions:


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